KATIE VON SCHLEICHER
Photos / Eric T. White
Story / Gabby Diekhoff
It takes some serious guts for an artist to publicly declare their work to be – for lack of a better word – shitty. Guts, or an admirably wicked, self-deprecating yet cognizant sense of humor which, ironically, exudes an air of unwavering confidence in its wake. So, naturally, my initial reaction to singer/songwriter Katie Von Schleicher naming her first full-length album Shitty Hits was, in the following order: 1.) a sharp and audible inhale 2.) a muttering of the word “iconic” to myself in the middle of a coffee shop, and 3.) the immediate urge to pop in some earbuds and listen to the album on repeat. I did exactly that, and was greeted by an overwhelming sense of affirmation – that is, as I suspected, any piece of art bold enough to label itself as garbage is bound to be an invaluable treasure.
By the second track, “Midsummer,” the Brooklyn-based musician had me intrigued; and by its third, a must-listen entitled “Paranoia,” I was irrevocably captivated. The album boasts Von Schleicher’s impenetrable intelligence via velveteen vocals, delicately layered atop a variety of swirling instrumentals (piano, drums, synth, and even the occasional sax all make appearances). The result is an enticing post-psychedelic, ork-pop wonderland; it’s enchantingly atmospheric, and if it weren’t for the intimidatingly sharp and, at times, lachrymose lyricism, a listener would likely be devoured by its sonic depth. Shitty Hits masterfully blends the tranquil and the rhapsodic, the melancholy and the campy, and is nothing short of genius – needless to say, neither is Katie Von Schleicher herself.
Be sure to give Shitty Hits a listen (it’s available now platforms like Bandcamp and Spotify), and check out this interview with Von Schleicher in which we discuss the intricate recording process, childhood bedrooms, psychotherapy, good books, and more.
Where does the title ‘Shitty Hits’ come from? I love it, and I feel it’s an interesting choice seeing as it’s somewhat contra to the album’s contents. It’s campy/humorous, whereas, thematically, the record is fairly dark/melancholy. Can you talk about that? Was this disconnect intentional?
Thanks for loving the title. I don’t know how I’m going to top it. “Shitty Hits” was just something I threw out late at night, describing the type of music I was going for, and I imagined it as the genre for the record. It’s representative of my blend of being irreverently humorous and self-deprecating, but also secretly a bit precious and genuinely sad. To me it really fits what the album has to offer. These songs are crafted in a pop ethic, but the lyrics are intentionally too shameful, dark or self-effacing to fit a classic radio tune.
Can you describe your surroundings and the kind of headspace you were in while writing these songs? In other words, what emotions can you pinpoint as driving forces behind the album?
I wrote most of the songs in an old apartment I shared with a boyfriend, in a neighborhood that felt distant from everything else. The scene was an airy living room with a piano, but I had a bit of a claustrophobic feeling. I felt isolated emotionally, kind of consumed and occupied with therapy, which I was going to three times a week while writing Shitty Hits. I wanted to go to therapy to manage some anxiety, and the program I was offered was three days a week, $10 a session. That’s not what I was looking for, but I’m apparently a sucker for an immersive experience, so I did it for two and a half years, and the album is very much bounded by that. Talking about myself with such frequency was pretty exhausting, and while I was in it I had so little perspective on what I was learning. I was internalizing it but could only sort of dabble at intellectualizing the experience. In fact, that was the work; we were working toward my becoming more present with an emotion, breaking down the think-y aspects, that tendency to distance one’s self and operate abstractly. It was immersive and hard to do, and I was raw all the time. Because of my headspace, I really sunk my teeth into the music, the writing and production, and somehow the songs are sonically jubilant, more tenacious, as if I was trying to claw my way back to something positive and tangible. It’s such a specific situation, but it created this dichotomy on the record that seems to be its crux.
I know that you recorded Shitty Hits in your childhood bedroom, which is a highly personal place and, I’m sure, one full of nostalgia. Do you think that particular environment influenced the sound and/or mood of it all? Why did you decide to record there, out of all places?
It was really a marriage of circumstance, recording it at home. I took two musicians I work with frequently, one of them Ava Luna drummer Julian Fader, who was insisting on the beauty of getting out of New York and recording to tape. The house in Maryland happened to be empty for a week, so we went there. It was really strange. I have a piano there, but otherwise it felt almost regressive to try to make a record in that space, which has very little “studio” or “creative” connotations for me. First thing I did was remove all the family photos, all the objects that just made me feel the imagery of being a 13-year-old eating Doritos in the living room [laughs]. We set up a metal table, and we used a tape machine and this little Bose sound link speaker as the monitor. For five days we began each song, recording 8 tracks on each one to cassette, which was a manageable goal. I love manageable goals. I took the rest to New York, and did my first laptop endeavoring, adding about 30 more tracks to each song, making them roughly 10 times more complex than my last album was. When no one was home in the apartment, I did vocals. I loved having a permanent studio in my room, because I could edit over time. I did a vocal take for ‘Midsummer’ and then waited a few weeks to listen back to it, giving myself critical distance. I’ve never layered vocals like I did for this. On ‘Paranoia’ I sang all the parts, then I’d go back and double the parts through a fuzzy guitar pedal, and then we layered all of it, like ten voices, in the mixing process. I’ll be really honest, what we did in Maryland was touched ever so slightly for me by a bit of hesitation in that space. It’s an identity thing; when I was growing up I just studied and played a lot of soccer, I wasn’t wildly creative. So which version of me is authentic, which is the stranger? The noised-out drums on ‘The Image’ are something I re-did later in a more confident headspace, alone. As much as I needed to get out of town, I also need to be alone with it, with music, which is probably the only really privacy-driven instinct I have.
Your first release, Bleaksploitation, came to fruition almost by chance after your internship with Ba Da Bing. Do you think you’ve grown as an artist and musician since then, and if so, in what ways?
It did. It was an opportunity given to me because Ben liked my other record, Silent Days. But it was different, because even though he just offered to make a short cassette run, this was on a label. It felt monumental and influenced what I did. The opportunity felt like a magnet that forced me to rise to the occasion, make something unapologetic, rough, saturated, almost perversely adventurous (for me), because in my mind it was my one shot to put something out on a label. I can’t emphasize enough how goddamn lucky an artist is to know ahead of time that their album will be distributed, treated like a real thing, given weight. I think in making it I grew a great deal, learning to produce and record myself, endeavoring to play all the instruments, steeping my voice in guitar pedals without asking anyone if that was OK. When you have a ‘pretty’ voice, a lot of people think you should make a lovely folk rock album, and I didn’t want to do that. This was the first time I felt really free and obligated to manifest the sounds I hear in my head, feel in my chest, into reality.
Would you say your music has a target audience? Or do you make it more for yourself?
I would of course love having any audience at all, and I really intended to make music that you can enjoy with or without the lyrics. But some part of it feels like a handshake between me and other people who have similar feelings. At its worst, this stuff I make is emotionally indulgent, but I don’t mind. It’s dangerous to ascribe my intuition or feelings to being a woman, because there’s no hard and fast rule. But I’m emotional and I’m tired of attenuating in a world where some topics are just too much. I make the music for the purposes of my own expression for sure, but I suspect there are a few others out there who get what I’m saying. I mean, I do, and that’s why I want to hear it baked into music that’s strong, a bit aggressive, confident.
Who would you site as some of your artistic influences? Obviously, musical influences are more than welcome here, but it doesn’t have to be limited to that. I think various mediums intersect and influence each other all the time, so you can talk visual artists, writers, whoever it is that happens to spark some creativity in you.
In terms of song-building, I’m inspired by Carole King and Randy Newman and a gazillion fairly classic individuals. More in terms of finished product: Arthur Russell, Kate Bush, the Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, the motherflippin’ Beatles. In vocal quality, Karen Dalton and Nina Simone, the androgynous lower octave doubling of St. Vincent. Outside of music, lots of film, but foremost Cassavetes and Gina Rowlands’ performances in his films. It’s the tangible chemistry of his actors, how they appear in most of his films multiple times. I read an interview where he said, “I believe in nepotism” and have thought about that a lot – it really adds this depth of human intimacy to his work. Raymond Carver’s short stories. Rebecca Solnit and Maggie Nelson’s absolute clarity and poetic phrasing. Alvin Lustig’s graphic design, especially his book design. Ben Lerner’s novels are perfect, both 10:04 and Leaving The Atocha Station, they deftly play between emotional resonance, abstraction and existential absurdity. Artful nonfiction like Karl Ove Knausgaard, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Blue Highways.
A lot of this album seems to address personal experiences and the issues of mental health/ illness (depression, especially), all of which I relate to heavily. Do you think it’s important for artists to address these issues more frequently? Do you think that more discussion and exposure would lead to more understanding and, ultimately, more acceptance?
I do address them heavily. Although I’m not a guru on this subject, I believe that we can force normalcy by being vocal about mental health issues. It took me a really long time, almost to the end of that long tenure in therapy I mentioned, but I finally just said “I am depressed, I have to accept it.” I brought it up just after we finished mixing the record, so perhaps the record was how I could say it before then. It took so long to admit because I let it be incredible in my mind, a deformity. But to those of us who face it, it’s not irregular, it’s about as regular as getting my period, digesting my food, being an animal with a body. The most exhausting part is how damn normal it is for me. Not everyone deals with it, and navigating that can be hard in close interpersonal relationships. It’s like anything else where we try to empathize with another person’s pain. My stance is, and this applies quite generally to topics of identity: if you care, then read about it until you can begin to fathom it bodily for yourself. Ask someone. I can’t empathize if I don’t try to understand. But of course the question is: is it fathomable if you don’t experience it? In this case probably yes, because we’ve all been tired. Artists are notoriously depressed and anxious, so maybe I think it’s even more important for us to talk about it at the dinner table, so to speak. Air it out.
Finally, are there any pressing questions you’re dying to be asked in an interview that you’ve never been asked? Or is there anything we haven’t covered here that you would like to share with LADYGUNN readers?
I think I’ve just written a novel here, so I’m not sure I have much left to say, but here goes:
Q: What are you doing right now? A: I just tried to break apart a chocolate bar that melted into a strange, blocky shape, and it was hard to break, which resulted in me smashing it into my lap. So now I’m just looking at my lap, covered in little chocolate fragments, and wondering what to do about that.
CONNECT WITH KATIE VON SCHLEICHER:
Oct 19 Union Pool Brooklyn, NY
Oct 24 Molotow Skybar Hamburg, Germany
Oct 26 Privatclub Berlin, Germany
Oct 27 Trafo Jena, Germany
Oct 28 Kassette Düsseldorf, Germany
Oct 29 De Kreun Kortrijk, Belgium
Nov 01 Thekla Bristol, UK
Nov 02 Hare & Hounds Birmingham, UK
Nov 03 The Deaf Institute Manchester, UK
Nov 04 Think Tank? Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK
Nov 06 Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) Glasgow, UK
Nov 07 The Basement York, UK
Nov 08 Brudenell Social Club Leeds, UK
Nov 09 Patterns (formerly Audio) Brighton, UK
Nov 10 Islington Assembly Hall London, UK
Nov 12 Merleyn Nijmegen, Netherlands
Nov 13 Rotown Rotterdam, Netherlands
Nov 14 Konrad Café Luxembourg, Luxembourg
Nov 16 Ancienne Belgique – Huis 23 Brussels, Belgium
Nov 17 Goudsteeg 21 Zwolle, Netherlands
Nov 18 Mousonturm Frankfurt, Germany
Nov 22 Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen London, UK
Dec 05 The Hi-Fi Indianapolis, IN